Listen to an audio description of The Vats that once haunted the Hamms' Brewery, part of the "Bending Over Backwards" walking tour:
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voices: Patrick Simms and Jesse Drew
by Jeff Goldthorpe, excerpted from a Masters' Thesis in Sociology for San Francisco State University, 1988
The old Hamms Brewery, for a brief time rehearsal space and crash pad to the local punk scene when it was known as "The Vats."
Photo: © Carla Leshne
The Vats at night.
Photo: © Carla Leshne
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Punks rock out in brief super-8mm clip shot in front of the Vats, c. 1983.
Film: Glenn Bachmann
|Attracted by inexpensive living accommodations and the freedom to practice at any time of day, hardcore punk band Millions of Dead Cops (MDC) took up residence in an abandoned San Francisco brewery known as “The Vats” in 1982. They were soon joined by friendly bands and other punks, who formed an informal community in the abandoned brewery. In addition to serving as a venue for housing, concerts, parties, and band practices, The Vats was also a forum for political discussion and protest in the punk scene. By conspicuously living outside the commodity system—often not paying rent or completing wage labor—residents of The Vats provided inspiration for future squatting protest movements in San Francisco.|
By early 1982, Millions of Dead Cops (usually referred to as MDC), a rising star on the thrash circuit, decided to leave its homey but confining base of Austin, Texas and move to the big city. They had toured around and had high hopes for their band's future in the hardcore revolution. They had considered living in Los Angeles but decided on San Francisco because the punk community seemed more friendly and cohesive. It felt farther away from redneck conservative Texas than anything else in the United States (a lot of their early music was obsessed with venting frantic paranoia about rednecks, cowboys, Klansmen and police). They stayed with the Fuck Ups for a week (S.F.'s street punk band notorious for a song with a Charles Bronson-let's-get-even motif called "White Boy") and for a week with Tim Yohannan of Maximum Rock'n'roll (the Fuck Ups' most well known antagonist), making friends right and left. But they soon gained a reputation as a band with political principles after a short-lived tour with Bad Brains, the scene's only Black thrashers, another band whose fortunes looked very good at the time.
Like any other fledgling band, MDC was looking for cheap living and practicing accommodations. They found just that in a building that had housed the Falstaff Brewery near the central freeway dividing the Mission from South of Market. The landlord's son had envisioned an enormous space for artists, something like the nearby Project Artaud, which is in an old American Can factory. Thus he let MDC live there quite cheaply. Much of the time they could stay for free. So they told their friends from Texas, (bands like D.R.I. and the Dicks) about this great place where you could live for next to nothing. Al, M.D.C.'s drummer describes the harsh living conditions:
"We had to find one [beer vat] where the back had been busted in, because we couldn't get our equipment through the hole--the holes are so people could crawl in and scrub the tanks. It was dark, cold and damp [in his vat]. The shower was cold and up two flights of stairs; we wound up hooking up our own private shower. The bathroom you could try to clean but it got fucked up so quick again. I was really sick the first few days. You cursed your way through the day in that place. But a place in San Francisco for 200 bucks where we could all live and practice anytime, 24 hours a day, is unbelievable. And we wound up not paying that rent. What we had was energy and we'd just work it off in labor, we'd jackhammer through [walls to make] doors for the guy who was building studios downstairs. It really did fit the hardcore image." [my emphasis,] (interview, 1989)
MDC's friends from Texas moved in and soon The Vats became known around the punk scene. Bliss, a longtime resident of The Vats said:
"It was first hippies and then the punks sort of drove out [sic] the hippies .... It was always kind of a hazy line--I never knew who was paying rent and who wasn't. It was supposed to be a legitimate pay-to-live there place. There were people squatting from the word go. It was such a big open place ... people would just move into tanks and get kicked out." (Waltz, 1988, p. 5)
Important for all residents, especially musicians, the building was legal, making water and electricity available. But it wasn't zoned for residential use, which restrained the owner from evicting the squatters. Dave, lead singer of MDC, described the tanks as being 40'x 10'x 10', able to house half a dozen to twelve people each, with ten or twelve vats on each of the four floors. At any given time 30 or 35 vats would be in use. Soon people started living inside the building's hollow walls on little ledges, sometimes fixing them up quite nicely. With the bands' energetic activity the space became a crash pad and a scene landmark for visiting out-of-town punks and punk bands, the site of after-concert parties and band practice sessions.
As befits a punk hotel, it was "the Wild West" as Dave called it; there was very little formal organization, no "house meetings," or stated principles of intentional living, no attempt to control who moved in or out. But if there was any structure, it was provided by the punk scene:
"Sure, we were one of the peer units but we weren't the only ones. There's all the bands that were hanging out ... The bands could, to a certain extent, manage it, regulate it through friendships, everyone knowing each other, everyone be cool ... For two years, if you were from out of town and didn't have anyplace to stay, why don't you go to the Vats? And you couldn't control everything that happened there. When we were there it was really cool: don't mess with the status quo. It was just when we went on tour with DRI and the Dicks, a whole power vacuum would be created." ( Dave, interview, 1989)
Although MDC had friends in the building, they kept their few belongings locked securely in their beer vats when they went on tour, which lasted for as long as nine months in 1983. So the rules and norms in the building, like in the slam dance pit, were in dispute. "The Vats had problems with drug dealers, thieves and weapons nuts in residence, as well as a resident firebug who set several small fires in the building" (Walton, p. 5).
For the first time since the late '60s a youth subculture was commandeering living space outside of commodity channels, generating a considerable amount of energy. Through this attempt to live without rent, a tiny counter-culture was finding itself in daily activity, rather than dispersing itself through wage labor:
"We had plenty of energy, plenty of food stamp drawing power. Seven of us at $70 apiece, that's almost $500 worth of food, not to mention the soup kitchens that kept us alive like Martin de Porres, John Coltrane Church and the one up in the Haight. You'd go there and see 20 or 30 people who I'd know. That's kind of how you could survive, practice, put in your energy, maybe sweep the streets a day or two a week, get a welfare check." (Al, interview, 1989).
As the most visible symbol of the positive punk attempts to seize space for its own activities outside the commodity system, The Vats was an embryonic expression of a disruptive social movement against bourgeois property, rather than a simple subculture existing inside the system. Though its cultural cohesion was fragile, it provided inspiration for much of the anarchist-led squatting in San Francisco of 1983-84.
It appears that repeated small fires, police pressure and internal conflicts among Vats' residents resulted in evictions and restricted access to The Vats in early 1984. Some residents (or ex-residents) responded to the evictions by making The Vats the site of several free concerts on Sundays between March and May 1984. These concerts were publicized by word of mouth. The gatherings were a place where a political concept of squatting was disseminated among punks and other interested people and where connections could be established to make further action possible. They marked a new stage in squatting activity that was more public, political and aggressive than the earlier low-profile activity.
"There was a squatter's group that met through the spring of '84. We did a few really wild shows in the streets outside The Vats. At the squatter's rally to re-occupy The Vats, it was pretty pathetic, but ten of us snuck through the caretaker's place, opened the door and got in The Vats and locked the door [to barricade themselves in--J.G.]. The cops came and said if we didn't get out, they'd turn off the music. So all the skinheads started yelling at us to get out so they'd keep playing music." (interview with Dan, 1988)
—by Jeff Goldthorpe
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Andrew Potter, former denizen of The Vats, tells his own story...